Part II – There or Thereabouts
In this series of articles, I will be taking a look at Bruce’s time at the club; from his hiring in October 2016, to ‘Cabbage Gate’, and everything in between.
So strap yourselves in for a long and eventful ride.
If you haven’t yet read Part 1, you can read it by clicking here: Steve Bruce – Under The Microscope (Part 1)
Part 2 is all about the 17-18 season, Bruce’s first full season in charge of the club.
Pre-season, transfer window and expectations.
Following the disappointing inconsistency of the 16-17 season, Bruce must make his first pre-season with the club count, in order to get off to a really good start and take the league by storm.
His second transfer window at the club brings another squad overhaul for Villa. Despite having to work under apparent ‘FFP constraints’ and reportedly having to sell in order to buy, Bruce is able to bring in high quality, former Premier League players, on really high wages.
In total, 7 players are brought in (John Terry, Ahmed Elmohamady, Christopher Samba, Glenn Whelan, Sam Johnstone again, Josh Onomah and Robert Snodgrass) with 12 players going the opposite way (Libor Kozak, Niall Mason, Carlos Sanchez, Jordan Veretout, Nathan Baker, Leandro Bacuna, Carles Gil, Aaron Tshibola, Jordan Amavi, Kevin Toner, Gary Gardner and Matija Sarkic), either on a permanent deal or short/long-term loan.
Before the season starts, Bruce confirms that we should be favourites for the league, “because we are Aston Villa”. He also states that regardless of “FFP constraints”, Villa will be “there or thereabouts” and have to make it back into the Premier League this season, otherwise the campagn will be a failure.
A freak kidney injury to Jack Grealish, sustained in Villa’s final pre-season game against Watford, means that we would be without our star player for the first few months of the season.
Poor and sluggish start
Villa get off to a poor start, winning just once in our first 7 league games. This leaves us sitting in 18th position on just 7 points and already 10 points behind early front-runners, Leeds United.
Being battered 3-0 away to Cardiff, losing 2-1 at Reading and drawing 1-1 at home to Hull are the most disappointing results in this period – despite the fact that Cardiff would go on to gain automatic promotion from the league. However, there is a great 4-2 win against Norwich at home, with Hourihane scoring a brilliant hat-trick. This game also signals the early season emergence of youngster Keinan Davis, who leads the line brilliantly against the Canaries.
This start leads many fans to question whether Bruce is the right man for the club. The term ‘Bruce-ball’ is introduced, in reference to the poor playing style that fans are seeing, especially on the road. However, Bruce quickly insists that he has been “successful at every championship club” he has ever managed and “will be successful” at Villa, if given the time. He simply says that we need to “dust waselves down and go again”.
Our defence looks shaky, but this would be the last time that I would ever question Lord John Terry’s defensive ability. His partnership with the equally, if not slightly more, impressive James Chester, proves to be one of the highlights of the season. And let’s face it, seeing John Terry in a Villa shirt is just a sexy, sexy sight.
Bruce accepts responsibility for the early season struggle, after stating that “90% of the team” have been away on international duty and are already tired. However, it shows the quality that Bruce has at his disposal, with so much international talent, and the Villa fans still expect him to turn it around by taking us onto automatic promotion.
Things start to click
Villa then win 4 games on the bounce and from the 16th September to the end of November, we win 9 out of 12 games, losing just twice. This big upturn in the club’s form puts Villa into 4th place, only 2 points behind the automatic promotion places.
Albert Adomah’s rich run of form is a particular highlight during this period, as he brings his goal tally up to double figures for the season and Bruce challenges him to “go and get another 10”.
The pressure we are now putting on the clubs above us makes it really important that we continue this momentum going into the busy Christmas period, in order to force our way into the top 2 and then stay there…
Inconsistency hampers us again
…or not. Over the next 5 games, during the festive season, Villa win zero games and look really poor. During this period, we let a 2 goal lead slip against Sheffield United at home, eventually drawing 2-2 and have to rely on a late bit of Henri Lansbury brilliance, in order to rescue a point against Leeds. We also lose to Derby County and are on the wrong side of a footballing masterclass against Dean Smith’s Brentford.
Bruce’s style of play is again raised as a point of concern amongst fans, with some supporters becoming uneasy with how Villa’s creative players are being stifled. This run of form pushes Villa outside of the playoff places, leaving us in 8th with some catching up to do.
January transfer window
Bruce 3rd transfer window at the club is surprisingly quiet, based on his previous standards. However, he still manages to bring in 2 more Premier League players, in the form of Axel Tuanzebe, from Man Utd, and Lewis Grabban, from Bournemouth. These two signings take Bruce’s ‘players in’ tally (including signing Sam Johnstone twice) up to 16 in just over 1 year at the helm.
Villa end 2017 and start the new year brilliantly, by going on a 7-match winning streak, beating the likes of Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest away from home, as well as thumping Bristol City 5-0. During this period, Robert Snodgrass shows just how important he is to our team, scoring 4 goals and firmly cementing himself as a fans favourite. Scott Hogan also finally comes to the party, scoring 5 goals in the 7 games.
Many fans though are quick to point out that this is largely down to the fact that, for the first time, Bruce plays a system which actually suits Hogan, instead of just lumping the ball up to him from deep.
Our last match of this period is a very satisfying 2-0 win against Blues. The game features a magnificent goal by Conor Hourihane, as he chests it down on the edge of the area and rifles the ball home on the half volley. The win is a particularly good one for Bruce and provides some sort of relief, after a really difficult time in his personal life.
This win finally leaves us in the 2nd automatic promotion spot, for the first time with Bruce at the helm. We had to now push on and make this position ours…
Inconsistency hits us hard…again!
…or not! We quickly fall out of the top 2 (after a hefty 6 days there) and we would not enter it again, for the rest of the season. The next 15 games see some good results, against the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds, Cardiff and in particular Wolves, comfortably beating them 4-1 at home. However, the run also sees us frustratingly lose against QPR, Norwich and Bolton, and draw with Hull City. During these 15 games, Villa win 7 times, lose 5 and draw 2 (more inconsistency), meaning that we would finish 4th, securing a place in the playoffs.
This was an absolute minimum at the start of the season, but with a ‘promotion specialist’ in charge, Villa would feel confident going into the playoffs, whilst also hoping to avoid Fulham in the final.
Play-off semi final
The first leg is a cagey affair. Middlesbrough see a lot of the ball but are unable to convert that into many clear cut chances. Mile Jedinak puts Villa ahead after 15 mins and we manage to hold onto the lead until the end of the game. A lot of the pre-game build up centres on the threat of Adama Traore. However, Alan Hutton has a great game and keeps the former Villa player firmly in his pocket.
If the first leg was tense, then the second leg is even more so. Neither side is able to conjure too many clear cut opportunities and the score stays at 0-0. Villa have a massive let off towards the end of the match, when Sam Johnstone handles outside the area, but the referee only shows a yellow card. From the free-kick, Middlesbrough come as close as they have done in the full 180 mins, as they hit the crossbar. Villa win 1-0 on aggregate and, due to their impressive comeback, now face Fulham at Wembley, for a chance to get back into the Premier League.
Bruce is delighted in his post-match interviews, particularly for the fans. He says that we must be at our absolute best to beat Fulham and that it will be an exciting game between “two football-playing teams”…yes, he actually said that his side was a football playing team, comparable to Fulham.
Despite the excitement and expectation, Villa simply do not show up in the first half. Even though this is one of the biggest games in Villa’s recent history, they are outplayed in the first half and make lots of mistakes. Tom Cairney puts Fulham ahead halfway through the first half, after Ryan Sessegnon is given so much space in the Villa midfield.
Shortly after this, though, Fulham are lucky to still have 11 men on the field, as Ryan Fredericks stamps on Jack Grealish’s leg, right in front the technical areas, the 4th official and one of the linesmen.
Villa do start to play a little better in the second half, but still have no clear-cut chances of any note. Even after Fulham have a player sent-off, Villa still don’t look like troubling the goalkeeper. Bruce tries to throw on as many forwards as possible, getting rid of any semblance of a formation, but it’s Fulham that end up winning the game 1-0.
Due to the poor nature of the performance in the play-off final, and the poor style of play throughout large parts of the season, there is a real split in the Villa fan-base post-season. Many of the fans think that Bruce should leave, whereas many think he has done a good job to get us to the final and should be kept on for a third season.
Bruce stays on as manager, on his final chance, but would need a good pre-season and a really strong start to the Championship campaign, in order to get many fans back on board. Hopefully, there would be no distractions in the summer…
To be continued.
By Daniel Horton